How to use the fascinating twists of writing process
I’m currently writing book 3 of the Casilda Trilogy.
Through the lives of Catherine, Selene and Miriam, the Casilda Trilogy explores the distance between myth and reality: the myths we live in, whether of personal fantasy, dreams or the political realities that exert stresses on individual lives. What is the nature of truth and where do we find it?”
It began with This is the End of the Story
Belief is Cassie’s gift, so much so that she believes herself to be whoever those in her life tell her she is — Cassie, Kat, Kitty, even Casilda, as her friend Miriam insists, an 11th century Muslim princess from Toledo who later became a Catholic saint.
Bound together by Miriam’s extraordinary internal world, Cassie’s belief and a traumatic incident on a beach, Cassie’s loyalty only strains when an act of betrayal propels her towards Liam, also waiting to tell Cassie who she really is.
But Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagine. And when she eventually visits Toledo, tracking down places where Casilda might have walked, is this the end of the story?
Exploring how one person might support the fantasy life of another, the novel is in Quixotic tradition. This is the End of the Story raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty and the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us.
Like Don Quixote, the novel is in two parts. Part I has 8 main chapters interleaved by vignettes. The chapters follow Cassie (who eventually reclaims her full name, Catherine) and Miriam, both a coming of age narrative and an exploration of identity. The vignettes give insight into the political and cultural context of the story, the end of the 1970s in industrial Teesside.
Part II revisits and finished the story from Catherine’s perhaps unreliable viewpoint. Looking back, she is trying to make the facts as she sees them fit the story as she felt it.
Writing it, the process was one of creative chaos. At the core was a story I had lived with for thirty years, but I wrote the scenes rather as memory works — via all kinds of random associations and circuitous routes.
Piecing the individual scenes together was an extraordinary undertaking. I knew it would not be a linear novel, but how the parts fitted together was crucial so that the right clues came at the right times. And to ensure the reader could navigate the time switches. The process felt sometimes like making Frankenstein’s monster and getting the head under the armpit. It took several attempts, but suddenly it fell into place.
In addition to mirroring themes and structure in Quixote, I also wanted to work in allusions to Dostoevsky’s journals, as one of the main characters suffers a similar form of epilepsy. And I added a further cultural allusion in the chapter titles. Cassie (Catherine) is somewhat out of step with her context. She doesn’t listen to the popular music of the day. She’s not much of a ‘joiner’. I signalled this by using song names from a Canadian folk singer who other teenagers weren’t following at the time, but Cassie was. Each title and the song it refers to says something about the events of the chapter.
The other literary allusion of this book is Elizabeth Borton de Trevino’s Casilda of the Rising Moon. Cassie’s close (and strange, Quixotic) friend, Miriam, is certain that the two of them have lived before, most notably as Casilda, an 11th century Moorish princess of Toledo, and Ben Haddaj, apparently a Muslim prince of Zaragoza. Casilda converted to Christianity and was later beatified and finally canonised.
In her life she became a hermit living near healing springs in the Castilian mountains and several miracles were attributed to her. Trevino’s children’s book, which I read in the 70s, is a marvellous sweeping romance that treats the Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations of Moorish Spain with great sympathy. It’s a story that had stayed with me and fascinated, but I wanted to write a more mystical and complex Casilda.
In the first book of the trilogy, the notion that Cassie and Casilda might be the same person across a century of history is ambiguous, but I dipped into Casilda’s story and it was a delight to do some research in Toledo. There is little trace of her, but there is a cave house from her time and a beautiful tiny mosque (later a church), Mesquita de Bab al-Mardum.
If this sounds complicated, I wanted the end result to be accessible and the reviews seem to support that I managed this. It was a lot of fun to write and the freedom to simply write scenes in any order and worry about how they fitted the shape later was liberating.
It moves on to A Remedy for All Things
Belief is Catherine’s gift, or it was once, having grown up in the shadow of an extraordinary friendship amongst a cacophony of voices trying to tell her who to be.
Now, in her thirties, Catherine knows what she has lost and that she has survived. Her professional life is on course and she has a new relationship with Simon, a writer who shares her imaginative and creative worlds.
But when Catherine arrives in Budapest in winter 1993 to begin researching a novel based on the poet, Attila József, she starts dreaming the life of a young woman imprisoned after the 1956 Uprising. More disconcertingly, this woman, Selene Virág, is with her by day, dreaming Catherine’s life just as she dreams Selene’s.
Obsessed with uncovering the facts, Catherine discovers that Selene was a real person who lived through the persecution of Jews in Hungary during WW2. But what is most disorienting, is that Selene believed Attila József to be the father of her daughter, Miriam, despite the fact that József committed suicide in December 1937, eighteen years before Miriam Virág was born. How do the three lives of Catherine, Selene and Attila fit together?
Densely layered, constantly challenging the boundaries between fact and fiction, A Remedy for All Things is a disquieting exploration of identity and of how the personal and the political collide.
Writing this demanded a wholly different process. The three intertwined stories take place on the same 30 days in the calendar in three different years: 1937, 1959 and 1993. The first is the last 30 days of Attila József’s life. 1959 is the life of Selene, in prison, but with flashbacks over the last 7 years. And Catherine (Cassie of the first novel) is in Budapest in 1993 to research a book about Attila József, though gets derailed by the dreams and by Selene’s story.
This book had to be linear to hold together these threads. And it had to move between Catherine and Selene alternately, with Attila József’s story intertwined in Selene’s. It was a prime example of how the material dictated form. In this, the creativity was in the imaging of lives and in the application of historical research to fiction.
I wrote a first draft from research and reading, but the more creative layering pf the story happened in Budapest. A month long writing retreat gave it a sense of place and added details I could never have discovered fro a distance.
It ends with For Hope is Always Born
Now I’m writing the third novel of the trilogy, For Hope is Always Born. The process of this one has been perhaps the most complex and interesting. Very early on, I realised that to bring all the threads together with some kind of resolution, even a slightly open-ended one, I wanted to write this as a mirror, and in some ways reversal, of the first book.
This meant the structure and chapter titles were already decided. Like the first novel, the timeline is open, moving back and forth in a non-linear fashion. The constraint is for each main chapter (8 in the first part and then a Part II that reflects backon Part I ) to echo and replicate themes from This is the End of the Story, whilst also changing the perspective.
The interleaved sections in Part I are a political and cultural commentary, but not newspaper snippets from 70s Teesside. This time they are first person vignettes of a political and personal nature, written in 80s Spain by one of the minor but crucial characters from the middle novel. This character is pivotal in the third book because events around her and the decisions she’s made are what set the stage for the protagonist to rediscover the story of Casilda in the twenty-first century.
The other fascinating part of the process of writing this book has been working on a book within the book. This is a retelling of the original Casilda story, written by another Miriam, Catherine’s daughter. Miriam’s interest is personal, but it also relates to her father, Simon’s, passion for alchemy and the mystical. So in this version Miriam portrays Casilda not as a figure in High Romance, but as a mystic and alchemist (not of metals but of the soul).
At the heart of all three books is an investigation of identity and transformation. How do any of us become a different story?
The challenges of a trilogy
I’ve just completed the third draft of the third book. This has been my major writing for the last four years and there’s some way to go before it’s complete. The second book is out this autumn, though there are a limited number of pre-order copies available. The third will be published in 2020.
Apart from being a long undertaking, holding together the complexity of the story has taken many notebooks and timelines. But one of the greatest challenges has been planting tiny indicators of the future story in previous books.
When I wrote This is the End of the Story, I thought it would be a stand-alone novel. It was only at the end that I realised there was more to come and I was lucky that Toledo provided me with not just details of place, but also objects that would become vital to the narrative arc.
The power of things
One objects has assumed extraordinary importance in communicating themes or threads through the novels, so much so that recently I ha a sleepless night researching how far back I could push this tiny thing.
Catherine wore a small necklace that first appeared in This is the End of the Story when she was searching for traces of the 11th century Casilda and dreams that her friend Miriam is with her:
When I step out of the shower, the flow of blood has ceased.
Here, Miriam says, enfolding me in a white towel. And this, she adds. She holds out a white knitted shawl that I’ve never seen, but know from the pages of Casilda of the Rising Moon, pulls it around me. It’s a cold night, she says, get under the blankets. I’ll make you some mint tea.
I slide between white cotton sheets, drowse.
When I wake, the sky is dark, sharp stars dazzle through open shutters. On the bedside table of dark wood and mother of pearl, a silk cord of palest blue, strung with a tiny hamsa: the hand of Miriam in damascene black, silver, gold. Beside it a turquoise glass of mint tea has cooled.
The hamsa becomes not only Catherine’s link back to Miriam and to a time of a more visionary world, but also a link to Selene, who, imprisoned at the end of the 1950s, seems to be in possession of the same talisman, carefully hidden.
And now, in the third novel, the same hamsa is present again, with questions of how it could have come from Selene to Catherine’s daughter, Miriam.
The power of place
For all three novels, place is a character. I grew up in 70s Teesside so felt confident of the writing, but visiting Toledo opened up details I would never otherwise have had access to. I’m convinced that travel and writing can be integral.
Of course, reading and research is also crucial. I know the power of narratives to inform, to inspire, to get under the skin of what might make us human. But I also know the power of place. As with Toledo, Budapest communicated powerfully. As a writer, the urge to travel, to touch the sense of place, has never felt more urgent than in writing this trilogy. Now I’m in Spain again. I began in Zaragoza, apparently Ben Haddaj’s city. He seems to have fallen out of history, yet at the Palace of Aljaferia I could almost conjure him.
We moved on to Burgos, where Casilda travelled to be be baptised before going into the countryside to the healing Spring of San Vincente, to live an ascetic life. It’s also the city where one of the characters in this book lives and, walking the streets, I found exactly the right house for her.
Unfamiliarity pushes at my boundaries and changes my perspective and what I write. This work would be wholly different without the immersion in the places in which it’s set, even when the places have changed a great deal in the thousand years since Casilda walked here.
And after the trilogy?
Writing the third draft of For Hope is Always Born, a new character emerged. She is part of the mirroring, yet only made herself known later in the writing. Saoirse is Miriam Jacobs niece; the first Miriam of This is the End of the Story. Her mother, Sarah, one of Miriam’s sisters, made a brief appearance in that first book.
Saoirse also appears only briefly, but she brings an important object and she has a strange and unfinished story. I don’t yet know myself what that story will be, only that it is already pulling at me and will be a spin-off of its own. As is the nature of story and creativity: the rest remains to be dreamt.
Becoming a Different Story
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.